This post is also available in Dutch.
How often do you become a couch potato?
We can be lazy sometimes, like couch potatoes, when we feel like doing nothing and avoiding any effort – either physically or cognitively. Cognitive effort refers to the effort you made mentally such as when solving a hard problem. It is generally considered aversive and unpleasant, but it is necessary for academic success, mastering new skills, and developing hobbies. In fact, some challenging tasks are known to be so engaging that people report being in a state of flow. What then drives the avoidance of certain demanding tasks while others are deemed pleasurable? The learning progress motivation hypothesis proposes that people prefer difficult tasks that provide room for changes in their task performance.
When do you avoid and when do you embrace demanding tasks?
A growing body of literature shows that people forego monetary rewards to avoid cognitively effortful tasks. Put simply, when they have the option to choose between two tasks, they prefer the easier one. This tendency to avoid cognitively demanding tasks is known as cognitive effort avoidance. In a recent study conducted at the Donders Institute, researchers asked whether we could counteract this aversion towards cognitively challenging tasks by adapting task difficulty to individuals’ own capacity.
When is cognitive effort pleasurable?
When people performed tasks that were neither too easy nor too difficult given their own capacity, they reported a greater liking for challenging tasks. Looking more closely, researchers found that tasks at an intermediate level of difficulty offered greater room for changes in task performance, which increased task engagement as well as changes in pupil size. In other words, when people were certain of their performance (whether certain that they will get the next question right, or certain they will get the next question wrong), there was no performance uncertainty, and hence, there was no room for changes in task performance. However, changes in task performance gave them that arousal boost they needed to keep going and persist during challenging tasks. In the absence of such a boost, there might not be anything to counteract the cost of effort.
The future of the psychology of effort
Can we avoid effort avoidance? The answer is yes. Next time you find yourself avoiding a task, ask yourself if you are learning anything new. Perhaps it is a really easy task for you that you do not feel like you are gaining much from it. Alternatively, if a task seems overwhelming, try breaking it down into smaller, more manageable steps. This can make the task seem less daunting and help you feel more in control. Plus, each time you complete a step, you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment and momentum that can help keep you motivated.
Author: Ceyda Sayali (guest blogger)
Buddy: Ping Chen
Editor: Helena Olraun
Translation: Judith Scholing
Editor translation: Wessel Hieselaar